I come from Sydney, Australia, where we frankly kill it with our fireworks displays every New Years Eve. (Oh, I'm sorry, New York, do you have fifteen barges across your harbor shooting massive bursts of light into the sky? Thought not.) But the history of our New Year's Eve celebrations, from yelling an old Scottish song that nobody really understands to making weepy resolutions we'll forget by March, is more twisted than it seems. It rockets (pun absolutely intended) from ancient Babylon to Marco Polo's voyages to China to World War II New York, and every step is weirder than the last.
New Years traditions around the world can get seriously bizarre. If you happen to find yourself in Aberdeenshire in the United Kingdom, for instance, you may want to stay indoors, because professionals roam the streets twirling massive fireballs around their heads. And anywhere in Germany will be festooned with pictures of pigs, as they're considered a seriously lucky animal. (In my opinion, you haven't truly lived until you've seen a stall covered with gingerbread pigs evacuated because somebody threw a New Year's firecracker at it.) Traditions vary hugely around the world from culture to culture, but there are some elements that have become common in the Western world, and they've all got very peculiar backstories.
I personally will be spending this year in a field, letting off fireworks and drinking hot mulled apple juice out of a thermos, while appreciating the bonkers, ancestral origins of our New Years traditions. Two-faced Roman gods and a fibbing Scotsman? Sign me up.
1. Marco Polo Probably Didn't Bring Fireworks To Europe
Fireworks displays are now such a traditional part of so many New Year's Eve displays around the world that you can forget they weren't actually a part of European culture until perhaps the 13th century. It's now widely believed that the Chinese likely invented gunpowder and then transmuted it into colorful explosions to use in warfare (the use of rockets to scare off Mongolian invaders in Mulan is actually technically accurate). But the question of how fireworks then got to Europe is still a matter of massive contention. One possible answer? Marco Polo, the controversial Venetian explorer who said he spent years in China in the 1200s.
A lot of history books will tell you that Marco Polo brought fireworks back to Europe, but it's not as simple as that. For one thing, he didn't bring them back to a European public that knew nothing about them: the academic Roger Bacon had already described them back in 1267. For another, he never mentioned fireworks anywhere in his books about his travels. (Yes, historians make entire careers from arguing about these things.) It's more likely that fireworks trickled slowly to Europe from Asia via traders and diplomats who wanted to show their bosses and friends "this fun new thing that goes bang".
2. Robert Burns Pretended He Didn't Compose "Auld Lange Syne"
The version of "Auld Lang Syne" that everybody sings at New Years — you know, the one about old friends and new ones — is now commonly believed to be partially composed by the Scottish poet Robert Burns. But Burns steadfastly refused to admit he'd written "Auld Lang Syne," instead blaming it on some anonymous poet he'd never met.
Burns was a collector of folk songs, and wrote to a friend in 1788 that he'd found "an old song and tune" that reminded him of her. "Light be the turf on the breast of the heaven-inspired poet who composed this glorious fragment!" he added, somewhat cheekily, as it seems that he probably composed most of it himself, based on several authentic old Scottish folk songs. It's now accepted that he "added" several of the better stanzas of the song — likely over half of it. But that doesn't make for half as good a story as Burns having just "discovered" it, of course.
3. The Practice Of Making New Years' Resolutions Is Thousands Of Years Old
Your early January decision to go to the gym more and make more time for your friends is part of a tradition going back thousands of years. New Years resolutions can actually be traced back to the ancient Babylonians, though their resolutions were less thoughts about personal improvement, and more promises made to their gods in order to avoid their holy wrath.
Historians now believe that the Babylonians made vows at the beginning of each year to repay their debts and return anything they'd borrowed, so that the gods would be pleased and grant them good harvests. (Their new year was at the start of the spring, so this was probably playing on their minds a lot.) The Romans did it too, dedicating their New Years resolutions (and gifts) to Janus, who had two faces, one for the old and one for the new. The tradition's been going on ever since, which means that all your favorite historical figures probably made New Year's resolutions at one point or another; Samuel Pepys, for example, charmingly took an oath on New Years Eve 1661 to "abstain from plays and wine." (It didn't work out.)
4. During WW II, The Times Square Ball Drop Was Replaced By Darkness And Truck Chimes
Like all the best New York stories, the Times Square New Years' Eve ball drop began as a publicity stunt, created by the New York Times in 1904, who wanted to celebrate the opening of their new building in the area. It evolved into a yearly tradition, and that ball has only had two years off ever since: 1942 and 1943, when World War II was raging and there were lighting restrictions across New York.
The ball drop organizers wanted to get around it somehow, though, so they replaced the ball with an eerie moment of silence in complete blackness at midnight, and then some sound effects: chimes being blared from the backs of trucks. The ball came back into use in 1945 and it's all has been loud, flashy New Year's Eve revelry in Times Square ever since — but those dark celebrations are a good reminder that no matter what is going on in the world, human beings will find a way to celebrate the beginning of a new year (and then find a way to blow off their resolutions).